“We are all sacrificing much for the COVID-19 crisis. I didn't want my students to sacrifice anything more than they had to,” said Dr. A. L. Ranen McLanahan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. To help transition his thermal systems lab courses into a new alternative delivery, he created four interactive lab-simulating applications for his students to download, calling the series, “Little Dude in Consulting World.” The apps allow students to control a 2D avatar who explores a 2D lab world from inside the classroom.
“I had the idea to use game creation software to make online material more interactive for a while,” said McLanahan. “When alternative delivery mode was announced, and students were no longer allowed to meet in the classroom, I went to work on it.”
Through animation, the avatar named “Little Dude” can wander around the 2D environment and follow mouse clicks. In McLanahan’s boiler lab, his students have the exact controls they would have in the physical lab. They can control power input to a heating element and can control the cooling rate.
“Students need to experience for themselves what happens to the pressure when boiling is higher than condensation,” said McLanahan. “When the system goes into its critical failure mode, they need to try to stabilize it in real time before the safety switch shuts the whole system down. They need to think about why the system reacts the way it does. Now they can do this completely digitally.”
As students participate in their lab courses, they are still meeting as a team through screen share technology. This gives students the ability to take data and discuss the material together.
“One of the strengths of the UW-Platteville labs is they are very hands-on. Students get theory, but they also get to interact with lots of equipment to see how the theory connects to the real world,” said McLanahan. “I didn’t want to lose that when everything went into alternative delivery mode.”
As students adjust to the new normal of lectures and labs it is also an adjustment for faculty. McLanahan acknowledges the importance of making sure his courses are organized and students have clear expectations to make sure they are keeping up with the subject matter.
“It’s given me a chance to really think about how to keep students more engaged at a distance because now all my students are at a distance,” he said.
As McLanahan’s physical labs remain in the virtual world for now, he hopes to carry on this new method of using “Little Dude” in his regular lecture courses.
“Once you understand the technology and how to do it, the possibilities open up and you can show students things they have never seen before,” said McLanahan. “One of my favorite comments I get from students is when they tell me they actually look forward to coming to class, because they want to see what will happen next. When students look forward to interacting with your course material, be it online or face-to-face, that’s a major step forward. It means they will be paying attention. And maybe they will learn just a little more because of it.”